The mad ship, p.18
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       The Mad Ship, p.18
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         Part #2 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb

  CHAPTER NINE - Bingtown

  DEEP INSIDE PARAGON, AMBER TOSSED AND TURNED LIKE A BADLY DIGESTED biscuit in a sailor's gut. A dream he was not privy to tore at her sleep, rending her rest into a blanketed struggle with herself. Sometimes Paragon was tempted to reach for her thoughts and share her distress, but most nights he was simply grateful that her torment was not his.

  She had come to live aboard him, to sleep inside him at night and guard him from those who might come to tow him away and destroy him. In her own way, she had complied with his request as well. She had stocked several of his holds, not with driftwood and cheap lamp oil, but with the hardwoods and finishing oils of her trade. The fiction between them was that she stored them there so that she could sit beneath his bow of an evening and carve. They both knew that it would take but a moment to kindle the dry wood with the oil and fill him with flame. She would not let him be taken alive.

  Sometimes he almost felt sorry for her. It was not easy for her to live inside the tilted quarters of the captain's room. With much muttering, she had cleared Brashen's abandoned possessions from the chambers. Paragon had noticed that she had handled them thoughtfully before she carefully stowed them belowdecks. Now she had taken over those quarters and slept in his hammock at night. She cooked out on the beach when the evenings were fine, and ate cold food at other times. Each day when she trudged off to her shop at daybreak, she took a water bucket with her. Every evening she returned laden with the brimming bucket and whatever she had brought from the market for her dinner. Then she would bustle about inside him, singing nonsense songs to herself. If the evening was fine, she kindled a cook fire and talked to him while she prepared her simple meal. In a way, it was pleasant to have company on a daily basis. In another way, it chafed him. He had grown accustomed to his solitude. Even in the midst of a companionable talk, he would know that their arrangement was temporary. All humans did was temporary. How else could it be, with creatures who died? Even if she stayed with him the rest of her life, she would still eventually be gone. Once he had grasped that thought, he could not be rid of it. To know that his days with Amber must, eventually, come to an end gave him a feeling of waiting. He hated waiting. Better to be done with it, and have her gone than to spend all his time with her waiting for the day she would leave him. Often it made him cross and short-spoken with her.

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  But not tonight. Tonight they had had a merry evening together. She had insisted on teaching him a silly song, and then they had sung it together, first as a duet for two voices and then as a round. He had discovered he liked singing. She had taught him other things as well. Not weaving a hammock: that he had learned from Brashen. He did not think she knew such sailorly skills. However, she had given him softwood and an oversize blade that he might try his hand at her trade. Sometimes she played another game with him, one that was somewhat unsettling. With a long light pole, she would reach up to tap him gently. The game was that he must bat the pole aside. She praised him most when he could deflect the tip before it actually touched him. He was getting good at the game. If he concentrated, he could almost feel the pole by the slight movement of air that it caused. Another fiction between them was that this was just a game. He recognized it for what it was: a drill in skills that might help him protect himself, if it came to a direct attack. How long could he protect himself? He smiled grimly into the darkness. Long enough for Amber to be able to kindle fires inside him.

  He wondered if that was what brought her bad dreams. Perhaps she dreamed that she had set fire to him and had not had time to escape. Perhaps she dreamed that she was burning inside his hull, the flesh crisping away from her bones as she screamed. No. This was more of a whimpering and pleading she made in her sleep, not the scream that could wake her. Sometimes, when the nightmares were upon her, it took her a long time to struggle back to wakefulness. Then, smelling of fear sweat, she would come out onto the deck to take in great gasps of cool night air. Sometimes when she sat down on his sloping deck with her back to the cabin, he could feel the trembling of her slender body.

  That thought made him lift his voice. “Amber? Amber, wake up! It's only a dream. ”

  He felt her shift restlessly and heard her incoherent reply. It sounded as if she called to him from a vast distance.

  “Amber!” he called back.

  She thrashed violently, more like a fish caught in a net than a woman sleeping in a hammock, then she was suddenly still. Three breaths later, he felt her bare feet hit the floor. She padded toward the hooks where she kept her garments. A moment later she was moving across his canted deck. Light as a bird, she dropped over his side to land on the sand. A moment later she leaned against his planking. Her voice was hoarse. “Thank you for waking me. I think. ”

  “You wished to remain in your nightmare?” He was puzzled. “I understood such experiences were unpleasant, almost as unpleasant as living through the reality. ”

  “They are. Extremely unpleasant. But sometimes, when such a dream comes repeatedly, it is because I am meant to experience it and heed it. After a time, such dreams can come to make sense. Sometimes. ”

  “What did you dream?” Paragon asked unwillingly.

  She laughed unevenly. “The same one. Serpents and dragons. The nine-fingered slave boy. Moreover, I hear your voice, calling warnings and threats. But you are not you. You are . . . someone else. And there is something . . . I don't know. It all tatters away like cobwebs in the wind. The more I grasp after it, the worse I rend it. ”

  “Serpents and dragons. ” Paragon spoke the dread words unwillingly. He tried to laugh skeptically. “I've taken the measure of serpents in my day. I do not think much of them. However, there are no such things as dragons. I think your dream is only a nasty dream, Amber. Set it aside and tell me a story to clear our minds. ”

  “I think not,” Amber replied unsteadily. Her dream had shaken her more than Paragon had thought. “For if I tried to tell stories tonight, I would tell you of the dragons I have seen, flying overhead against the blue sky. It was not so many years ago, and not so far to the north of here. I will tell you this, Paragon. Were you to tie up in a Six Duchies harbor, and tell the folk there that there were no such things as dragons, they would scoff at you for foolish beliefs. ” She leaned her head back against him and added, “First, though, they would have to get used to the idea that there was truly such a thing as a liveship. Until I saw one and heard him speak, I had believed liveships were only a wild tale concocted to enhance the reputation of the Bingtown Traders. ”

  “Did you truly find us that strange?” Paragon demanded.

  He felt her turn her head to gaze up at him. “One of the strangest things about you, my dear, is that you have no idea how wondrous you are. ”

  “Really?” He fished for another compliment.

  “You are fully as marvelous as the dragons I saw. ”

  She had expected the comparison to please him. He sensed that, but instead it made him uneasy. Was she fishing for secrets? She'd get none from him.

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  She seemed unaware of his displeasure as she mused, “I think there is in the heart of a man a place made for wonder. It sleeps inside, awaiting fulfillment. All one's life, one gathers treasures to fill it. Sometimes they are tiny glistening jewels: a flower blooming in the shelter of a fallen tree, the arch of a small child's brow combined with the curve of her cheek. Sometimes, however, a trove falls into your hands all at once, as if some greedy pirate's chest spilled before an unsuspecting beholder. Such were the dragons on the wing. They were every gem color I know, and every possible shape one could imagine. Some were dragons such as I knew from childhood tales, but others had shapes whimsical and still others were terrifying in their strangeness. There were proper dragons, some with long serpentine tails, some four-legged, some two, red and green and gold and sable. Flying amongst them were winged stags, a formidable boar who swept h
is tusks from side to side as he flew, and one like a great winged serpent and even a great striped cat, with striped wings. . . . ” Her voice died away, subsiding in awe.

  “They weren't real dragons, then,” Paragon observed snidely.

  “I tell you, I saw them,” she insisted.

  “You saw something. Or some things, some of which had stolen the shapes of dragons. Nevertheless, they were not real dragons. As well to say that you saw green, blue, and purple horses, some of which had six legs and some shaped like cats. Such things would not be horses at all. Whatever it was you saw, they were not dragons. ”

  “Well . . . but . . . ”

  It pleased him to hear her flounder for words, she who was usually so glib. He didn't help her.

  “Some were dragons,” she finally defended herself. “Some were shaped and colored just as the dragons I have seen in ancient scrolls and tapestries. ”

  “Some of your flying things were shaped like dragons and some like cats. As well to say that flying cats are real, and sometimes they are shaped like dragons. ”

  She was silent for a long time. When she spoke, he knew she had been thinking and that her chain of thought had dragged her back to his personal history. “Why,” she asked in a deceptively courteous tone, “is it so essential to your happiness that there be no such thing as dragons? Why are you so intent on crushing the wonder I felt at the sight of those creatures winging?”

  “It isn't. I don't. I simply believe that one should say what one means. I don't care that you wondered at them. I just don't think you should call such things dragons. ”

  “Why? If there are no such things as dragons, what does it matter what I call the creatures I saw? Why should not I name them dragons if that name pleases me?”

  “Because,” he declared, suddenly nettled beyond all reason. “Because if there were any such thing as dragons still, it would demean them to be grouped with such grotesques. ”

  Suddenly, she sat up straight. He felt her shift away from him. He could almost feel her prying stare trying to pierce the darkness and see what little the hatchet had left of his face. “You know something,” she accused him. “You know something about dragons, and you know something about my dream and what it means. Don't you?”

  “I don't even know what you dreamed,” he stated. He tried to make his voice reasonable, but it climbed up the scale and cracked. It always chose the worst times to do that. “And I've never seen any dragons. ”

  “Not even in your dreams?” Her soft question was as insidious as drifting fog.

  “Don't touch me,” he warned her suddenly.

  “I wasn't going to,” she said, but he did not believe her. If she touched him, skin to wood, and reached hard enough, she would know if he were lying. That was not fair. He couldn't do that to her.

  “Do you ever dream of dragons?” she asked him. It was a direct question, asked in a casual voice. He did not fall for it.

  “No,” he replied succinctly.

  “Are you sure? I thought you had spoken to me about such dreams, once. . . ”

  He shrugged, an elaborate charade. “Well, perhaps I did. I don't recall. Maybe I did dream such a dream, but it wasn't important to me. Not all dreams are important, you know. In fact, I wonder if any dreams are important or significant. ”

  “Mine are,” said Amber defeatedly. “I know they are. That is why it is so distressing when I cannot grasp what they mean. Oh, Paragon, I fear I've made an error. I pray it is not a grievous one. ”

  He smiled in the darkness. “Well, how grievous an error can a bead maker commit? I am sure you are troubling yourself over nothing. Dragons and sea serpents indeed. What do such fantastic creatures have to do with you and me?”

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  “Sea serpents!” Amber suddenly exclaimed. “Ah!” For a long time, she was silent. Then he almost felt the warmth of her smile wash against him. “Sea serpents,” she affirmed to herself softly. “Thank you, Paragon. Thank you for that much. ”

  “IT'S NOT YOUR WATCH. ” OPHELIA SPOKE THE WORDS QUIETLY.

  “I know that as well as you do. I couldn't sleep,” Althea replied. She looked out past the figurehead. The waves were gentle swells. The soft spring wind pushed her light cloak against her body.

  “I know that as well as you do,” Ophelia countered. “You've been tossing in your bunk for two hours now. Why? Are you excited about docking in Bingtown tomorrow?”

  “Yes. But not in a glad way. I fear all I must face tomorrow. My sister, my mother. Kyle, perhaps, if Vivacia is there. Oh, Ophelia, I even dread facing my ship when the time comes. How can I look at her and explain how and why I let her go?”

  “You know you will not have to. Just put your hand to her planking and she will feel it all, as surely as I do. ”

  Althea slid her hands lovingly along the polished railing. “It is such a wonder to me, the understanding that has developed between us. It is another reason I dread docking in Bingtown tomorrow. I have felt so safe aboard you. I hate to leave you. ”

  A light footfall on the deck behind her turned her head. It was Grag. He moved across the moonlit deck, his bare feet falling softly. He wore only his trousers. His hair was tousled and boyish. Obviously, he was recently awakened, yet there was still a tigerish grace to his gait as he crossed the deck. A slow smile crept across Althea's face. Very softly, Ophelia answered her thought. “Men have no concept of their own beauty. ”

  Grag grinned as he approached. “I tapped at your door. When I didn't find you there, I knew right away where to look. ”

  “Oh?” Ophelia broke in archly. “Are you in the habit of tapping at Althea's door at this hour? With no shirt on?”

  “Only when my father wakes me up and asks me to,” Grag replied easily. “He said he wanted to have a quiet talk with both of us. ”

  “I was not to be included in this 'quiet talk?' ” Ophelia demanded, already offended.

  “I assume you were, since he asked me to wake Althea and bid her to come here. I thought you might even have suggested it. ”

  “No. It's my idea. ” Captain Tenira stepped quietly into their circle. A coal glowed in the bowl of his short-stemmed pipe and fragrant smoke drifted with him. “Call me a fearful old man if you will, but there are some precautions I'd like to take before we dock in Bingtown. And they involve Althea. ” His serious tone quenched their banter.

  “What did you have in mind?” Althea asked.

  “I've been thinking about our encounter with that Chalcedean galley. They were flying the Satrap's banner. Things have been changing in Bingtown for the last few years. I don't know how much favor and influence that captain may have there, or whether he would send a complaint there about our response. ” Captain Tenira gave a disgusted snort. “When he finally got under way again, he may even have fled there. So. Depending on how much influence he has there . . . and on how badly the Satrap currently grovels to Chalced . . . we may have an unpleasant welcome awaiting us. ”

  A little silence fell over the group. It was obvious to Althea that Grag had given this no more thought than she had. It was not that she had dismissed the incident as trivial: never that! Ophelia's beautiful, slender-fingered hands were scorched. No matter how many times the figurehead assured her that she did not feel pain, at least not as humans did, Althea still winced at every glimpse of her blackened hands. Althea had looked forward to reaching Bingtown, and expected that the other Old Traders would share her deep anger and affront at the attack. Never had she paused to think that others there might think the Chalcedean galley and her crew had been wronged.

  Captain Tenira gave them time to mull this before he spoke again. “As I said, I might simply be a fearful old man. What, I asked myself, is the worst they can do to me? Well, I answered, they could seize my ship when I tied up at the tax dock. Why, they might even take custody of my first mate and me. Then who would go to my family, to tell what had befall
en us? Who would witness to the Bingtown Trader Council and demand their aid? I have many good hands, good sailors one and all, but,” he shook his head, “good speakers they are not, nor are they Bingtown Traders. ”

  Althea grasped it instantly. “You want me to go?”

  “If you would. ”

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  “Of course. Without hesitation. I wonder that you think you need to ask this. ”

  “Of that, I had no doubt. But there is more, I'm afraid,” Captain Tenira said quietly. “The more I dwell on what may have changed in Bingtown, the less confidence I have of our welcome. To be safe, to be sure, I think it would be best if you resumed your boy's guise. That way, you could more easily slip away from the ship. If you had to. ”

  “Do you really believe it is likely to come to that?” Grag asked incredulously.

  Captain Tenira sighed. “Son, we carry a spare mast belowdecks. Why? Not because we are likely to need it but because someday we may. That is how I prefer to think of this as well. ”

  “I would feel as if I were sending her to face danger alone,” Grag objected suddenly.

  His father eyed him levelly. “If it comes to this, we may actually be helping her to slip away from danger before the trap can close on her as well. It would be more advantageous to them to hold hostages from two Bingtown Trader families than one. ”

  “Them? Who are 'them?' ” Ophelia suddenly demanded. “And why should any Bingtown Trader have to fear anyone in Bingtown, save another Trader? Bingtown is our town. The Satrap Esclepius deeded it to us many years ago. ”

  “And Satrap Cosgo has been whittling away at that deed ever since he inherited the Mantle of Righteousness. ” Captain Tenira closed his mouth suddenly, as if biting back bitter words. In a milder voice he went on, “Others have come to power in Bingtown. At first, we paid little heed to the tariff collectors. Even when they demanded a tax dock where each ship must first tie up, we conceded it as sensible. When they demanded the right to inspect cargoes for themselves rather than take the captain's word on what he carried, we laughed and agreed. It was our town. Their suspicions were offensive, but in much the same way that rude children are offensive. We did not count on this wave of so-called New Traders, who would ally with the Satrap's tax collectors to gain power. Nor did any of us ever believe that any Satrap would accept Chalced's grubby hand in friendship, let alone permit Chalcedean galleys in our waters under the guise of law and protection. ” He shook his head to himself. “These are the things I have been contemplating tonight, and that is why I have decided to err on the side of caution. ”

 
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